How to be a better movie watcher, according to film critics : Life Kit This guide — which comes with a fun brochure you can download and print at home — offers advice on how to pick a film, get outside your comfort zone and deepen your enjoyment of movies.

How to be a better movie watcher, according to film critics (plus a handy brochure!)

How to be a better movie watcher, according to film critics (plus a handy brochure!)

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Malaka Gharib/ NPR
Popcorn bag with smiley face
Malaka Gharib/ NPR

It's winter break and you know what that means — it's time to grab a blanket, pop some popcorn and get cozy with a movie.

We've compiled our film critics' advice on how to be a better movie watcher in this handy brochure. Download it here and print it out at home. Select the "two-sided" option when you print. Then fold the brochure into thirds, as shown in the image above. Malaka Gharib/ NPR hide caption

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Malaka Gharib/ NPR

The question is, what should you watch? Should you go for the films being considered for the big awards like the Oscars or the Golden Globes? Should you go for old favorites? Or should you watch something totally outside your wheelhouse?

With thousands and thousands of movies available for streaming (not to mention those in theaters), it can be hard to decide where to put your time and focus. Film critics explain how to narrow down your choices, get outside your comfort zone and deepen your enjoyment of movies.

Let the experts be your guide

Let's tackle the hardest bit first: how to pick a film to watch. In addition to endless options, there's no shortage of movie recommendations in the zeitgeist, whether it's from your friends, TikTok or the movie rating site Rotten Tomatoes.

So who should you listen to? The film critics we interviewed said to start with folks who know a lot about film.

Read film criticism. Devika Girish, co-deputy editor of the arts and culture magazine Film Comment, is a strong proponent of finding and reading film critics. She says their reviews can help you find out what you want to watch next.

Growing up in India, she loved TIME Magazine's film critic Richard Corliss. He had a way of helping viewers understand that films have "moral stakes and political stakes — and are so much more than entertainment," she says. Follow reviewers "who can parse the movie for you and add that extra context."

Advice on how to pick a movie: Let the experts be your guide.
Malaka Gharib/ NPR

Explore curated collections. See what independent film distributors and smaller streaming services have to offer. These niche companies often champion films they really believe in.

The Criterion Collection, for example, preserves and releases classic and contemporary films that its curators deem "exemplary" of its kind. So you can find culturally significant '70s movies like Cooley High alongside modern blockbusters like WALL-E. Its streaming service also offers fun collections to explore, such as Westerns that take place in the snow, movies about soccer and movies hand picked by the actor Tessa Thompson.

Go to your indie theater. Many independent theaters offer films and programming that are relevant to your city, including themed series, locally made films and even in-person discussions with filmmakers and actors.

The Belcourt Theatre in Nashville, Tenn., for example, is playing the British Film Institute's top 10 films — which includes Vertigo and Citizen Kane — over the winter break. It also hosts a film series called Pizza and a Movie, where viewers can watch movies made by Black filmmakers from the '90s while eating pizza from a local Black-owned pie shop. These spaces are a natural place to connect with other people who care about movies.

Get outside your comfort zone

"Go to all movies with an openness to see what might move you and what kind of pleasures [the film] might afford," says Devika Girish.
Malaka Gharib/ NPR

People often feel apprehensive about watching films outside their wheelhouse, says Girish. They worry they won't have a good time, that it'll be boring or that they won't understand the movie.

To combat these feelings, keep an open mind. "Go to all movies with an openness to see what might move you and what kind of pleasures [the film] might afford," she says.

You might feel intimidated, for example, to watch the works of Hong Kong film director Wong Kar-wai because you might see his films as too "serious," says Girish. But if you don't give it a try, you might miss out on a "deliriously romantic, beautifully melodramatic" cinematic experience.

It helps to remember that movies are there for your entertainment, says NPR movie critic Bob Mondello, who says he watches 300 movies a year. "I go to most movies blind with the idea that I'm going to have a good time."

But even if a movie is a stinker – that's not a waste of time. "If you don't like it, that's still an experience you had," says Girish. "That's something that'll help you decide next time what you want to watch. That's still something you can talk about with your friends, about why you didn't like it."

A zine on how to be a better movie watcher

Print out a brochure with the advice from this story

We've compiled our film critics' advice on how to be a better movie watcher in this handy brochure. Download it here and print it out at home. Select the "two-sided" option when you print. Then fold the brochure into thirds, as shown in the image above.

Immerse yourself in the movie

If you can't get to a theater, try your best to mimic that immersive experience at home.
Malaka Gharib/ NPR

There's a reason movie theaters are dark and have no windows, says Mondello. "They don't want you to think about anything outside the theater."

If you can't get to a theater, try your best to mimic that immersive experience at home. Girish recommends watching on the biggest screen available to you. She lives in an apartment with roommates, so she opts for a projector and watches movies in bed. "This is my happy place. I lie in bed, I turn on the projector. And I can turn off all the lights and it's like a little DIY home theater," she says.

Woman eating popcorn loudly and another woman being annoyed by her.
Malaka Gharib/ NPR

If you can, leave your phone in another room so you're not distracted by the beeps and boops. And if you're prone to falling asleep – Girish fixes that by being a "relentless snacker," she says. She particularly loves munching on crisped chickpeas and popcorn and sipping a hot cup of cider while watching movies.

It's also a good idea to figure out whether you like to watch movies alone or with other people, says Girish. "I focus better when I'm watching with people because it reminds me that this is an experience we're having together." Meanwhile, others may find the social aspect too distracting.

Track what you watch

Keep a list of all the movies you've watched. It helps make plain what you like, what you don't like and what types of movies you're drawn to.
Malaka Gharib/ NPR

Keep a list of all the movies you've watched, says Girish. It helps make plain what you like, what you don't like and what types of movies you're drawn to. One of the most popular places to do that is on Letterboxd, an online platform that lets you log your movies, write reviews and follow other people's watch lists. (Check out our Letterboxd list of all the movies mentioned in this episode.)

"Keeping a record of what you see can also help you make a decision" about what to watch, she adds. You might ask yourself, "What have you not seen so far? How might you expand your taste?"

Make better movie recommendations

"I like to tell people why I connected with the movie personally and find something that is personal for them," says film critic Devika Girish.
Malaka Gharib/ NPR

Ever watched a movie that you absolutely loved, but struggled to explain to a friend why they should watch it?

In moments like these, says Girish, "I like to tell people why I connected with the movie personally — and find something that is personal for them."

During Thanksgiving break with her boyfriend's family in Mississippi, for example, she was able to convince her boyfriend's dad to watch The Kingdom Exodus, a new TV series. Although the show's director Lars Von Trier is notorious for his dark and difficult-to-watch movies (his 2009 film Antichrist, for example, tackles depression and sadomasochism), Girish thought her boyfriend's dad, who is a doctor, would be interested. "It's a workplace comedy set in a hospital and it's about all the little petty fights and arguments and day-to-day," she says.

Lastly, don't feel pressure to form an opinion about a film right after you watch it — or have an opinion at all, says Mondello. If you've just watched a movie "with the right people and you're having a good time and you can go out for drinks afterward," then "three cheers and hallelujah!"


The audio portion of this episode was edited by Sylvie Douglis. The digital story was edited by Malaka Gharib with art direction by Beck Harlan. We'd love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at LifeKit@npr.org.

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